'What If...?': Marvel Remixes MCU Origin Stories From A New, Entertaining Perspective But Needs More Divergence [Review]

In Marvel Studios’ first animated series, “What If…?,” Tony Stark’s critical opening origin moment from “Iron Man” in war-torn Afghanistan is retold. However, instead of being captured and critically wounded when shrapnel embeds into his heart from an explosive device of his own Stark Industries making—a brush with death that leads him to an epiphany about his life as an arms-dealing war profiteer— he is saved and rescued by the militant soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). We don’t see the rest of the scene because it’s only in the trailer—not the first three episodes given to press for review—but its possibilities are limitless. Which is the crux of “What If…” based on the comic series that recontextualized the origin story of many Marvel heroes and villains, posing various questions about where their paths may have led them had their crucial turning points not occurred or occurred differently. For Tony Stark, maybe the “What If…” question is: what if Tony Stark never became Iron Man, met Erik Killmonger, and continued on his path or arms dealing? That’s certainly a radically different destiny, and “What If…?” is perfectly timed, exploring the multiverse and unlimited possibilities of time, space and new narrative, just a few weeks after the events of the “Loki” series ripped the multiverse wide open.

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Created by head writer A.C. Bradley and directed by Bryan Andrews, “What If…?” is an anthology series, but it’s loosely all tied together by The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), an omniscient being who observes and comments on the events of the multiverse but vows to not interfere. If “What If…?” the comic played with twists on comic book origins, “What If…?” the animated series toys with riffs on the MCU origins, but it could stand to go much further.

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Most of the anthology episodes (so far, anyhow) are recontextualized origins that we’re familiar with (some mild spoilers ahead for the spoiler-phobic that didn’t watch all the story elements already told in the trailer). In the Captain Carter opening episode, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) finally gets her due, taking the super-soldier serum meant for Steve Rodgers, after a Hydra terrorist attack nearly ruins the entire experiment. Much to the chagrin of the sexist and disappointed War Generals, Peggy becomes the Captain, imbued with super strength and amplifying all her best abilities and qualities. Along for the ride in this slightly askew origin story are some familiar faces and voices, Steve Rogers (who becomes a hero in his own right), Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Bucky Barnes, (Sebastian Stan) Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), and the allied forces, of course, face off against the Red Skull, again. So, it’s all familiar, but slightly altered, given some new texture with a female heroine trying to fight the Nazis and Hydra in a skeptical, misogynist, and male-dominated world.

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Episode 2 is similar in its depiction of the “Guardians Of The Galaxy” character you know, Star-Lord, with a twist. Instead of Peter Quill, it’s T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in his finally MCU appearance). In this reality, the young boy was kidnapped from Wakanda by the Ravagers, who were actually looking for Quill, but somehow nabbed the wrong kid (humans apparently all look the same to these space pirates). This adventure is fairly similar to the events of “The Guardians Of The Galaxy and has some of the same players—Yondu (Michael Rooker), a more glam version of Drax, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Kraglin (Sean Gunn), The Collector (not Benicio Del Toro, it seems), and an entertaining riff on Thanos (Josh Brolin), that we won’t spoil here that also includes the Black Order, Proxima Midnight etc. Two episodes of slightly altered origins with a new MCU character in the lead position get dull quick though, and as much as Brolin is a delight in this episode as the altered Thanos, Episode 3 can’t come fast enough.

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It’s far and away the best one as it’s the most different, playing with MCU moments, yes, but ultimately telling a much, much different, gloomier story, that hints at some of the darker elements of some of Marvel’s more difficult and morally compromised heroes. Episode 3 is essentially a mystery and whodunnit about who is slowly killing off the Avengers one by one.  Many of the team members are seen in familiar MCU moments—Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (now capably voiced by Lake Bell), Iron Man at the Donut shop in “Iron Man 2,” and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in “Thor”— but then these recognizable scenarios soon go South. Someone is killing Avengers and is trying to frame Natasha Romanoff as the culprit. The episode also contains the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) but centers significantly around Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is serving Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. an ultimatum: find and hand over who killed his brother Thor to him immediately to stand trial in Asgard or face certain doom with a full-on war on the planet. Obviously, unlike most MCU stories, Episode 3 feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the remix origins of the previous two installments—albeit, it’s just super satisfying to see and hear Hayley Atwell play Captain Carter and the character kicks so much swift ass (there’s also an agency, power, and grace to the character that’s just really compelling too).

To that end, the action and the animation of “What If…?” is just tremendous and if visual spectacle, splendor, and kinetic energy are your bag, Marvel’s animated series will absolutely win you over. Entertaining and fun, it remains to see how inventive, original or crucial “What If…?” will mean to the MCU if at all—though seeing some of the altered characters in live-action like Captain Carter would be super cool. And one hopes the remaining six episodes will really try and alter the storytelling dramatically, closer to Episode 3, than simply just tell origin remixes. Still, as ultimately disposable, potentially even throwaway what if? Marvel stories, it’s an enjoyable enough series, but it’s probably not going to change your life or upend the cinematic universe in any way, either literally or figuratively. [B-]

“What If…?” debuts on Disney+ on August 11.